Train

I saw the movie Short Cuts about a decade ago. It was the first time I recall seeing a movie in that style…the ensemble cast, the handful of stories that were either implicitly or explicitly connected, the mixture of humor and sadness, sorrow and joy. Because of Short Cuts, I rented Grand Canyon, which is much lighter, but similar. Crash and Me and You and Everyone We Know are more recent examples, both of which I enjoyed. I’ve always liked these movies but I have not read any books comparable to this style. Well, now I have.

It began last summer when my wife walked up to me in Borders, handed me Train, and said, “Do you think you would like this?” The first thing I do when I get an unfamiliar book is flip to the About the Author section. I do this because I have no literary background and I need some validation that the author is accomplished and respected. Many people would have recognized Pete Dexter, but I didn’t. I never start with the synopsis on the back cover because that’s all marketing hype. I’m sure the About the Author section also has plenty of marketing hype, but you can’t fake things like National Book Awards or New York Times Notable Books. Can you? Maybe, but besides getting recommendations from people you trust, I don’t know of a better way to help me assess a book for consumption. Do I sound like a literature snob? I hope not. But when something totally unfamiliar hits the screen, I start by qualifying the author, so to speak.

Train was written by Pete Dexter. He also wrote Paris Trout, which won the National Book Award. Paris Trout was made into a TV movie and I remember it being advertised a lot on HBO or Showtime. I also think it received some critical acclaim. Of course, these things drew me in. Couple those items with a plot that included golf, and I basically had no choice but to buy it.

The book is set in Los Angeles – year 1953. Amongst the ensemble, there are three primary characters. There’s Train, a black caddy with a special gift for golf. He has a big heart, but makes some questionable decisions. There’s Miller Packard, an enigma. He’s a cop, a part-time criminal, and a golf course hustler – at least, that’s the best I can tell. He’s nurturing and violent at the same time. And finally, there’s Norah Still. She’s a former human rights activist who finds her way to Southern California and gets embroiled with this lot.

I was immersed and interested throughout, but I can’t really say it was fun. The situations that the characters get themselves into are downright strange. I’m talking weird, gut-wrenching, horrible, humorous…you name it. It’s a dark, depressing story. There is a lot of violence and a lot of sex. And you don’t get a lot of clarity. The sensation of reading this book is totally different from reading something with a protagonist, an antagonist, a plot line, and the words THE END on the last page.

Dexter doesn’t ever let you feel like you have a grasp on what’s going on. He just throws these characters at you and starts telling a bunch of short stories. Problems don’t get resolved, apparent criminal actions don’t get investigated, and certain story lines don’t get concluded. Something big and important may happen, but you may not find out about it until afterwards, in the recollection of one of the characters. You sense connections, you get to know the characters, you get hints on what’s next, you look forward to simply getting some clarity. Sometimes things get clarified and sometimes they don’t. I was never bored because the anticipation of some sort of conclusion keeps you turning pages.

Like I said, this book is dark, but there is some hope. At times, amidst all the pain and suffering, the characters show themselves to be kind, giving, and understanding. I personally found a lot of hope in the golf aspect, but please don’t look at this as a golf book. Golf is always there, but rarely the center of attention. You can tell that Dexter has played some golf because he has a few keen insights into the game, which were entertaining for a fan of the game like me.

I will, at some time in my life, read more Pete Dexter. I’m not going to run out tomorrow and blow my Borders gift certificate on Paris Trout. However, it’s good to know that there is a National Book Award winner out there that I will probably be interested in reading.